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How to spot a toxic work environment

Engagement | Communication | Wellness | Resource

Posted on: Wednesday November 09, 2022

by Niki Pembroke, Senior Account Development Manager

Toxic offices are a hot topic these days. But they’re not always so easy to identify…

This insidiousness means that bad behaviour can stick around unnoticed, eroding your culture in a matter of months. 

And the facts don’t lie: toxic workplaces can reduce people’s engagement, turbocharge employee turnovers and slash productivity. Which makes the need to recognise them as an employer especially urgent. 

To help you do this, we’ve highlighted some key things to watch out for, before exploring what you can do to nip them in the bud. 

What is a toxic workplace? 

Toxic is a word that’s used a lot these days – often applied to situations without any clear criteria. And that means most of us are left in the dark about what it really means or looks like. 

According to Alexandra Lichtenfeld, business mentor at strategic business relationship firm Client Matters, toxic cultures are ones where the workplace is plagued by conflict, passive aggression, shouting, drama and unhappy employees to the point that productivity is impacted. 

In other words, it’s an office where a negative atmosphere leads to even more negative results.  

Five signs of a toxic workplace 

So, how does toxicity play out in real life? Here are the key elements of an unhealthy office environment:  

1. Poor communication 
If your employees are avoiding talking to one another, that’s a problem. Worse still, if their efforts aren’t being met with constructive feedback or recognition, they’ll just end up feeling deflated.  

Over time, this disconnect can bubble up into full-blown conflict, causing teams to fracture and fight. 

2. Harsh or ineffective bosses 
Toxicity often trickles down from the top. Here, we’re talking about managers who aren’t properly trained to lead – or abuse power to belittle their juniors. 

Examples include treating people with disrespect, failing to take responsibility for their mistakes, or not providing clear or helpful direction to their team. 

3. A cut-throat culture 
In cut-throat cultures, employees are constantly undermined, put under chronic pressure and subject to brutal backstabbing. 

This toxic cocktail creates an environment where teams are always in survival mode. They don’t feel they can trust anyone – let alone speak out.  

4. Exclusivity 
Cliques and hierarchies can be harnessed to exclude others and keep them down.  

And all-too-often, these in-groups can coalesce around privilege – meaning that women and people of colour can feel left out and alienated at work. 

5. Lack of integrity 
Having a role which has ethics at its heart is crucial to many people’s job satisfaction. But companies can often neglect this in the name of profits.  

Without proper intervention, people can start lying to one another, shirk regulatory compliance or treat each another unfairly.   

Ways to fix toxicity 

If you find yourself noticing these signs in your workplace, it’s easy to spiral into a panic. But you have some control over this situation. Here’s what you can do to turn things around: 

  1. Identify employee concerns: Through one-to-ones and surveys, get to know what issues they're struggling with. Then make sure to address them head-on. 
  2. Encourage communication and wellbeing: Let employees know they can always come to you with any problems. And implement wellbeing initiatives that help employees manage their emotions in a healthier way.   
  3. Make people feel recognized: Instruct managers to share positive feedback with their juniors when they’ve done a good job. 
  4. Foster a culture of inclusion: Implement DE&I training, policies and workshops, so no one’s locked out of conversations or opportunities. 
  5. Call people out: If you notice that someone’s behaviour is toxic, call them in for a chat and set some firm boundaries. If they’ve done something particularly serious, you shouldn’t hesitate to address the issue directly in line with your HR policies.  

Of course, toxicity is scary. And it’s much easier to hide your head in the sand rather than confront it. But ignoring the problem will only cause things to fester and deteriorate. 

In the end, it’s only when we properly look at our office’s ugly side that a calmer, kinder and more supportive culture can begin to emerge. 

Want more support in building a healthy workplace? Get advice from a Personal Group Benefits Expert or subscribe to more of our blogs


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